Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Never Met A Ghost I Didn't Liked

The Headless Horseman(1922)
Director: Edward D. Venturini
Cast: Will Rogers, Lois Meredith, Ben Hendricks Jr.

All but fogotten early adaption of the Washington Irving classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, perhaps the finest American ghost story. This obscurity is not mentioned in most film guides i've ever seen and in fact, was used as a bonus feature on Alpha DVD's The Mechanical Man DVD! It's a wonderful curio piece, with a handful of creepy images and an excellent feel for the period, evoking Washington's imagery better than most other versions. It's easily the most faithful(practically to the letter) of the original story and is most notable for the truly bizarre casting of Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane, the unlikeable schoolmaster with the wonderful name!

The plot is virtually identical to the story, following Ichabod's journey to Sleepy Hollow, a dutch hamlet with a very clannish and close-minded society. The arrogant and pompous Crane is not recieved well and it's no surprise, as he regularly disciplines the children and mooches off of the village. Plus, he upsets the town bully, Brom Bones(Ben Hendricks Jr.) by hitting on his sweetheart, Katrina Van Tassel(Lois Meredith). Ichabod is very superstitious, so the crafty Brom uses this to his advantage and frightens the schoolmaster with tales of the Headless horseman, a ghost who returns to ride nightly in a single area, searching for his lost head. One evening, while returning home, Ichabod is confronted by the specter, which proceeds to chase him right out of Sleepy Hollow! It turns out to be Brom, but it's a nicely atmospheric segment, nonetheless, even if for some viewers, it probably felt like awhile to get there.

Far from a great silent, this works best as a curio-piece for the classic horror fan and is important as being so faithful to it's original source. It's fascinating to watch, considering most of it was actually shot not far from the real locations described in the short story. For some peculiar reason, this is one of the only live-action versions made during Hollywood's classic period, which is a shame, considering the number of beautifully made supernatural pictures that would emerge within the next few decades.
The direction is at times, remarkable, particularly the flashback depicting the ghost of the headless horseman stalking a graveyard and the exciting ending. However, there's far too little horror and scares, when there should have been much more. The age and the attention to period detail help create a nice sense for atmosphere, but it's not as memorable as it could have been. A big part of the problem lies with the miscasting of Will Rogers, known for his loveable and folksy characterizations in the early 30s. Will certainly looks the part, but it's an odd choice, and hard to take. None of the other actors are really that memorable and while some fault probably lies within the original story, it's difficult to warm up to such a prejudiced people. At one point, they even try to tar and feather Ichabod, who depsite being a bit of an ass, does not deserve that! That was provoked by Brom Bones, the perennial meathead, who makes up a lie about Ichabod, so he can get Katrina all to himself, and because of Ichabod's arrogant nature, there's not much to find sympathy with here.

This is not entirely without merit however, and deserves at least some mention among the early American horror films, and makes a nice filler for a Halloween marathon. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the great classic tales of the supernatural and because of this film's relative accuracy, that's enough to reccomend it.

Below is Ub Iwerks' 1934 cartoon version of the story. It's a cute adaption and another great view for Halloween, though not nearly as creepy as the same animator's Jack Frost, which always serves to remind me why I hate winter. Brrrrrrr!

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